Carmilla: A Critical Edition by J Sheridan Le Fanu

‘But dreams come through stone walls…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Carmilla book coverAlthough overshadowed by the later Dracula, Carmilla still stands out as one of the best of the gothic vampire stories. This book includes the story itself in its original form, together with an introduction and four critical essays that set out to analyse the text from a variety of perspectives.

Atmospheric and chilling, Carmilla has everything we could want – gothic ruins, beautiful victim, even more beautiful and extremely sexy vampire, midnight terrors and a climactic graveyard scene. Throw in some very Victorian-style lesbian eroticism and Le Fanu’s fine writing and it’s no surprise that Carmilla continues to be influential on writers and filmmakers even today. It’s been years since I read it last, as part of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, and I found I enjoyed it very much on re-reading.

However the main purpose of this book is to critically re-analyse Carmilla and (somewhat to my surprise) I found the critical essays at least as enjoyable, if not more so, than the story itself. Kathleen Costello-Sullivan’s introduction describes how the story’s psychological aspects, representations of gender and sexuality, and aesthetic and narrative characteristics have led to scholars returning again and again to re-assess the book over the years. She also justifies its inclusion in this Irish Studies series on the grounds that it is generally accepted that the story is drawing parallels with the political and cultural life of Le Fanu’s Ireland.

(One of the three engravings in the book)
(One of the three engravings in the book)

The first essay is by Jarlath Killeen, who takes this Irish aspect of the story and argues that the picture Le Fanu gives us of Laura and her father as English people clinging to their Englishness while living abroad is representative of Le Fanu’s own position as an Anglo-Irish protestant at a time when the Church was being disestablished and Home Rule was a major topic. So far, so convincing. However, I found Killeen’s positioning of Carmilla within this Irish-ing of the story less convincing. He seems on the one hand to be arguing against a Catholic Carmilla (based on her disgust at the Catholic forms followed by the villagers) and then claiming her as a metaphor for the Catholic aristocracy on grounds that I felt were either shaky or not well enough explained.

J Sheridan Le Fanu(source: wikipedia)
J Sheridan Le Fanu
(source: wikipedia)
In the second essay, Renee Fox suggests that the mutual attraction between Laura and Carmilla prevents a simple reading of Carmilla as a Catholic metaphor rising to crush the Laura-as-Protestant metaphor. In fact, she sets out to show the ‘indistinguishability’ of victim and vampire, the blurring of which is predator and which is prey. ‘The attraction and affinity between Laura and Carmilla functions not to demonize the Catholic Irish, but to express an ‘atrocious’ cycle of political vampirism in which Protestants and Catholics make monsters of each other, reproduce each other’s aggression, and ultimately become indistinguishable from one another.’ From a rather tetchy beginning in which Fox ticks off previous academics somewhat testily, this turned out to be a particularly interesting and well-argued analysis providing much food for thought.

Next up is Lisabeth C Buchelt who examines the ‘aesthetic’ positioning of the book. A subject about which I knew nothing, I found Buchelt’s arguments clear and easy to absorb. She argues that the story ‘forges a connection between popular ideas about the picturesque and what constitutes the vampiric’ and that Le Fanu uses the ‘popular literary trope of medievalism’ in constructing a ‘vampire aesthetic’. My initial reaction to that was to gulp a bit – quite a bit, in fact. However, she then goes on to explain this in a way that meant I not only understood it but was convinced by her argument. An interesting and informative essay.

Terror in the CryptLastly, Nancy M West takes us on a run through of the films that have been either adapted from or influenced by Carmilla, with a look at how the lesbianism in the story has been dealt with over the years as social mores and, perhaps more importantly, censorship rules have changed. Lighter than the other essays, this was an enjoyable finish to the book.

In conclusion, if you are interested in the story but not the criticism, then much better to get this as part of In a Glass Darkly. However, I found the criticisms very interesting, much more than I anticipated to be honest, and for me they have enhanced the story without destroying any of its original impact. I therefore heartily recommend this book.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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